The warning signs are there for genocide in Ethiopia – the world must act to prevent it

Source: The Guardian

By Helen Clark, Michael Lapsley and David Alton

The country has been scarred by violence on all sides, but there may be much worse to come as Tigrayan civilians are targeted

Supporters of Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed at a rally in Addis Ababa
‘Five warning signs for mass, ethnically targeted violence are flashing red.’ Supporters of Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed at a rally in Addis Ababa this month. Photograph: AP

Rarely before has the danger of genocide been so clearly signalled in advance than in Ethiopia.

No side to this conflict is angelic. All sides in Ethiopia’s conflict have committed violations. But only one side has committed violations on a scale and nature that could credibly qualify as genocide – and that, we regret to say, is the coalition of the Ethiopian government, under the prime minister, Abiy Ahmed; the Amhara regional government; and the state of Eritrea.

Twice in the past year, the world has stood by while this coalition has perpetrated international crimes against civilians of Tigrayan identity – including murder, rape, torture and starvation.

We may now be facing a third atrocity, even larger and bloodier than what has gone before: a possible mass killing of interned civilians in Addis Ababa and elsewhere.

Five warning signs for mass, ethnically targeted violence are flashing red.

First, figures in the Ethiopian government and their allies have promoted hate speech against Tigrayan people as an ethnic group. They have stoked violence in language that identifies all Tigrayans as enemies. This hate speech is escalating – Tigrayans have been referred to as “cancer”, “weeds”, “rats” and “terrorists”.

Second, the government has mobilised the instruments for mass atrocity, in the form of militias and vigilante groups, organised on an ethnic basis and with an ethnic agenda. It has armed them and granted them impunity.

Third, the government is eliminating any middle ground. It has silenced independent and critical voices. It has prevented media access to Tigray, closed down or censored independent national journalists, and intimidated foreign reporters and their local counterparts. Individuals who try to protect Tigrayans are also attacked. People who try to remain out of politics are condemned as “fence-sitters”.

Fourth, the government has begun large-scale detention of Tigrayan civilians in areas it controls. One year ago it interned at least 15,000 ethnic Tigrayan members of the armed forces, whom, we understand, it continues to keep in detention camps. It has interned Tigrayan civilians in western Tigray. In recent weeks it has interned more than 30,000 ethnic Tigrayan civilians in Addis Ababa and unknown numbers elsewhere.

Fifth, the international community is divided, confused and indecisive. The government has protectors at the UN security council. The African Union listened deferentially to the government’s denials and obfuscations. The main European powers have dithered. The US has toned down its condemnations, perhaps for fear of being diplomatically isolated. It also has conflicting priorities, including trying to facilitate humanitarian assistance and initiate negotiations for a ceasefire and political settlement – an agenda that can preclude calling out one party to the conflict for atrocity crimes or genocide.

In the 1990s, after mass atrocities in former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, there was renewed interest in the obligation to prevent genocide enshrined in the 1948 genocide convention. There have now been more than two decades of policy and institutional reforms on atrocities prevention and response. There has been a litany of mea culpas, of enjoinders to greater political will, and calls for “never again”.

Crucial reports were written in the decades after Rwanda and the wars of Yugoslavia’s dissolution that shaped the debate and policy over the use of coercive measures in pursuit of peace, humanitarian action and the prevention of atrocities. At the United Nations, the African Union, international expert commissions, and under the leadership of powerful countries – reams of paper were dedicated to analysing the past and pledging to heed warning signs and prevent genocide.

Those reports all stressed that genocide is preventable – if the political will is there to act on warnings.

Today in Ethiopia, these warnings could not be more clear. The time to act is now – to call out what is happening and for the UN security council to use every measure at its disposal to give meaning to the cry of “never again” and prevent catastrophe.

  • Helen Clark is a former head of the UN Development Programme and former prime minister of New Zealand. Fr Michael Lapsley is president of Healing of Memories Global Network and founder of the Institute for Healing of Memories. David Alton is an independent crossbench life peer and campaigner on genocide


  1. We have been out on the streets the whole year asking for help.But,so far nothing except concern I don’t what kind of proof the international community looking in Oder to help the innocent civilians of Tigray. Tegaru need they have been blocked for a year they have been in total dark for year with out water ,food, medicine without everything and rape ethnic cleansing.

  2. I dont know what the international community is waiting for. We are living in fear. Our parents house has been searched twice, Nothing has found. They came again for the third time and forced my family as a citizen, they need to support the government/the military financially and my family gave them some money in fear if they so no they will be arrested. Sadly they came for the forth time and took them. Its been three weeks. There are over a thousand detainees in every camp, warehouse, school halls etc every single man in my family uncles and cousins also our neighbors are detained. i heard they are arrestimg 3 thousand a day, anyone with Tigrayan name from the bus, cafe, restaurant, workplaces etc… The camps are not design to be a prison with no shower and one toilet to share with over a thousand people. You can imagine the horror they are facing. Elderly people with health issues like my father is suffering. The rest of my family is also suffering being beaten up, pushed over, being called names every single day while trying to take food for the detainees. Some days they will be told they are not accepting food, some days they are wipping them with a stick like an animal. Then the detainees will go without food for two days, if they refuse to accept food.

    No conviction, no explanation, no charge…. this is clearly a torture to demorilise Tigrayans. As TPLF is nearing Addis, we are hearing horror spectaculation that prisons will be bombed by Abiy supporter or Eritrean troops (who are all over the country including Addis)

    God help us. We have suffered enough

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